Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg leaves the European Parliament after answering questions, in Brussels

Zuckerberg lightly toasted in EU grilling over Facebook fails

Image credit: Yves Herman/Reuters

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came through a grilling from EU lawmakers about the social network's data policies relatively unscathed, as the peculiar format of the hearing left the 34-year-old social media kingpin with little time to answer the questions fully.

Zuckerberg had agreed to meet EU’s lawmakers to answer questions about how the political consultancy group Cambridge Analytica improperly acquired and exploited the personal data of 87 million Facebook users, including up to 2.7 million users in the EU.

Maintaining his composure – having already come through a similar experience in last month’s US hearings – Zuckerberg apologised to leaders of the European Parliament in Brussels for the Cambridge Analytica massive data leak, launching another honest, charm offensive to hopefully draw a line under the damaging scandal.

The European Parliament invited Zuckerberg to testify before them over a month ago, when the scandal first broke, but he only agreed to come to Brussels last week. UK MPs have also been keen to pose their own questions independently of the EU to Zuckerberg, but he has so far declined the UK’s invitation.

At the EU meeting yesterday, Zuckerberg stayed beyond the allotted 75 minutes as the meeting ran over time, but he still did not answer all questions put to him, leaving many EU legislators angry and disappointed.

Zuckerberg avoided answering specific questions, notably around users’ opt-outs from targeted advertising, the sharing of data between Facebook and its messaging service WhatsApp, as well as Facebook’s collection of data on non-users.

He spoke for over half an hour in total, mostly repeating assurances and descriptions of Facebook plans already detailed to US lawmakers during the 10 hours of hearings in Washington last month.

Touching on the data scandal, Zuckerberg said: “That was a mistake and I am sorry for it,” admitting that not enough was done to prevent the data breach and assuring those assembled that Facebook was now better prepared and was working on further improvements.

He said it had “become clear over the last couple of years that we haven’t done enough to prevent the tools we’ve built from being used for harm as well”.

“Whether it’s fake news, foreign interference in elections or developers misusing people’s information, we didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibilities.”

While the manner of questioning from EU officials was certainly tougher, more pointed and more direct than that of the largely toothless US inquisitors, there was no opportunity for them to follow up on Zuckerberg’s replies if they felt his answers fell short. Instead, Zuckerberg promised that written replies would follow from Facebook in due course.  

The unusual format of the EU meeting saw the leaders of pan-European political groups take it in turns to ask a slew of complex, often unrelated questions, one after the other – before Zuckerberg could give his first answer.

This avalanche of questions took over an hour, leaving the Facebook founder only 30 minutes or so to track back and answer the questions in turn, starting from the top.

Inevitably, Zuckerberg gave something of a catch-all monologue in response, in a speech characterised by broad-brush answers and promises, before he left for Paris and a private meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

The hearing in Brussels had been billed as a showdown between the Facebook CEO and European Union lawmakers. At the last minute, Zuckerberg agreed to allow the event to be broadcast live on the internet.

“The responses we received today from Mr Zuckerberg, and indeed the restricted format of the hearing, were totally inadequate,” Guy Verhofstadt, a liberal member of the European Parliament, said afterwards in a statement.

“I have no doubt that Mr Zuckerberg is a genius, but there is a risk his legacy will be that he created a company akin to Frankenstein’s monster, which spiralled out of his own control.”

Udo Bullman, the leader of the Socialists & Democrats group, echoed that frustration and called for another meeting to grill Zuckerberg on privacy.

“The format of the meeting was a farce,” he said. “Zuckerberg did not answer many of the direct questions put to him and the few answers that we heard were disappointing.”

British Conservative Syed Kamall complained the hearing was a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for Zuckerberg and said Facebook’s reluctance to detail some of its workings left regulators trying to “cure a disease without knowing what the illness is”.

Investment analysts were unmoved by the outcome of the event, with Facebook’s share price holding firm, having lately recovered to a stable level after an initial hit and dip precipitated by the data scandal.

Zuckerberg’s appearance in Brussels came just three days before the EU’s tough new GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) rules on data protection come into effect. A company will be subject to fines of up to 4 per cent of its global turnover for breaching the new data rules. Zuckerberg said that Facebook expected to be compliant with the EU rules when they come into force on Friday, stressing the firm’s commitment to Europe where it will employ 10,000 people by the end of the year.

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has suspended 200 apps from its platforms as part of its investigations into third-party apps that have access to large quantities of user data. Zuckerberg said he expected more apps to be penalised.

Cambridge Analytica and its British parent, SCL Elections Ltd, have declared bankruptcy and closed down since the scandal broke.

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